As major K-pop stars such as BTS and Blackpink continue to conquer the charts, a South Korean underground scene has been taking shape — and acts such as Balming Tiger are here to everything this scene truly encompasses.
The eight-piece collective highlights K-pop’s multidimensional complexity extending outside pop and R&B with layers of punk and hip-hop. On March 15, Balming Tiger spearheaded Tiger Den at SXSW, the first full-day music event in the festival’s history to feature Asian artists exclusively. Two days later, the
group took to Dr. Martens stage, where their high-energy performance compelled attendees to mosh (yes, as in Warped Tour-style moshing) and body roll, all in one set.
This is alt K-pop, as the Balming Tiger has coined itself.
The group consists of performers Omega Sapien, sogumm, bj wnjn, Mudd the student, producers San Yawn and Unsinkable, video directors Jan’ Qui and Leesuho, visual artist Chanhee Hong, DJ Abyss, and writer Henson Hwang. Each artist shines independently, but together, the collective is a versatile mega bomb delivering everything from gritty hip-hop lyrics to punk beats and sultry R&B vocals. The inclusion of punk rock into their music and live shows certainly sets them apart from K-pop’s more R&B-centric sound.
From their debut mixtape Balming Tiger vol.1: 虎媄304 to their hit single “SEXY NUKIM (featuring RM of BTS),” Balming Tiger embraces the future and uses their platform to encourage the next generation of Korean artists. Following their buzzy SXSW performance, Rolling Stone spoke to the group about their self-described “alt K-pop” sound and the imminent global takeover of Korea’s distinct subculture movement.
YouTube is where you all were introduced to your musical inspirations. Were there particular artists that struck you growing up?
Omega Sapien: Pharrell Williams, Tyler. The Creator, and Kanye West. There are so many. (Points to bj wnjn.) That guy went all the way to Summer Sonic just to see D’Angelo.
So, we don’t come together genre-wise. We come together as a spirit and energy. He (Mudd the student) comes from the ‘90s to early 2000s Britpop, I come from hip-hop, and she (sogumm) comes from R&B, but we like-minded people meet up. That’s why it brings so much color to our show and music.
So, to your point about your various backgrounds, how did you find out about each other?
Omega Sapien: In Korea, the subculture scene is growing now. It’s very easy for us to interconnect because it’s not that big yet. So, San Yawn is the director, CEO, and leader-boss. He’s our number one man, and he just collected everyone.
So, what attracted you to everyone?
San Yawn: I loved sogumm’s music first and wanted to make a team with her. Then, I wanted to listen to his (Omega Sapien) music.
Omega Sapien: He’s like a Pokémon collector!
‘Gotta catch ‘em all!’ Ultimately, what do you envision for the group?
Omega Sapien: We don’t really have set goals. I think we’re just trying to enjoy ourselves now and ultimately have a good influence on people. I have a background in America. When I lived in New Jersey in 2012-2013, there was no Asian role model for me to look up to – only Bruce Lee, and he’s from the ‘60s. I was so lost in this in this foreign society. It was like, ‘Who should I look up to? Who should I follow?’ And I was like, ‘Damn, I should do that because I have to empower young me,’ so people can see us and say, “Wow, we can do our Asian things and be as cool.” So, that’s my purpose.
I love that mainly because you each bring unique individuality to the group. How are you hoping to inspire the next generation?
Omega Sapien: So, what we want for the future generation in Korea is to show you don’t have to be the prettiest, most handsome, or perfect person. Just follow your heart. You see Balming Tiger and say, “I could just do what I want to f—king do, and I can make it like Balming Tiger.” Eventually, that will make people follow their hearts and branch out the subculture. It will give K-pop longevity.
I’m glad that’s the mission. Speaking as an American, many just think of K-pop as BTS or Blackpink, but it’s more than that. You’ve described your sound as “alt K-pop.” What does that mean? How are you driving the K-pop scene forward?
Omega Sapien: We have to start with, ‘What is K-pop?’ In our opinion, it’s not a genre because, in K-pop, there’s R&B, hip-hop, and everything. So, you can’t really specify what genre it is. K-pop is more of a phenomenon. So, K-pop is just whatever the f— you want, but we wanted to do even more whatever the f— we want, so we added “alternative” in the front.
Well, what do you see as trending musically in South Korea?
Omega Sapien: NewJeans. They’re this sick girl group from Korea. They’re not getting the light just yet. They include Korean subculture and traditional K-pop together. So, I have big respect for them. They have a bright future ahead.
Nice. And what’s the subculture like in Korea?
Omega Sapien: I feel like it’s growing now. This amazingly talented producer called 250 makes a song for NewJeans. Five years ago, it was all about bringing influences from outside of Korea. So, we were absorbing American hip-hop and pop. But now, with us and 250, we’re ready to do our own sh-t and provide our own sound. So, that’s the movement in Korean subculture.
You all brought incredible energy to SXSW tonight. So, what are you hoping the fans and new listeners walk away knowing about you as a group?
Omega Sapien: Korea is f—ing next.